There was a lot of excitement about this one and one of my lovely book-blogging friends highly recommended it – so I scampered across to Netgalley and managed to snag an arc – thank you! If you do recognise yourself, please let me know and I will give you a shoutout.
Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval. There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit. She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.
This is essentially African-inspired epic fantasy with a strong POC protagonist in Arrah and an interesting, coherent structure of magical with important differences in tone and effect within the various tribes. I really enjoyed the backdrop, the feel of the book and Barron’s vivid, gritty writing. The supporting characters were also layered – I particularly loved the depiction of Arrah’s mother, who is by far the most interesting, charismatic character for at least the first half of the book. But none of this would have worked if Arrah’s own personality hadn’t pinged off the page in her desperate longing to fulfil the destiny that was well nigh flattening her from the time she was old enough to realise who she was supposed to be. It is often a trope within SFF – a protagonist is lacking that vital talent or magical ability so confidently predicted from their birth. But rarely is that disappointment so acutely experienced as in Kingdom of Souls. It was a real heartbreak to see Arrah’s pain as her mother increasingly distanced herself from her daughter, while her father desperately tried to compensate by providing all the love and companionship she could want – incidentally immersing her in his own blood magic rituals, presumably hoping some of it would rub off…
I loved the fact that family went on mattering to Arrah throughout the length of this twisting plotline – in fact, it’s a major theme that recurs within the narrative arcs of a number of the supporting characters, too. As someone who is fascinated by the family dynamic and also writes a lot about it – this is meat and drink to me.
Do be aware that this is a gritty read including child abduction and death, parental rejection and dark magic – much of which appears in medieval-era fantasy tales as a matter of course, but somehow the more exotic setting and different flavour of magic manages to give a more menacing aspect to these events. I also think that Barron’s intense, sensual writing style packs a punch.
This is a triumphant debut by a very promising author. It’s not perfect – there are places where the pacing could have been tightened up as the description took over at the expense of the action. But given the ambition and breadth of the book, these lapses were relatively few and far between. Highly recommended for fantasy fans who appreciate something different. The ebook arc copy of Kingdom of Souls was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.